Roasted with a bit of good olive oil, creating luscious, oozy cloves to squeeze onto a thin water cracker for a highflavor, easy-prep, low-calorie snack.

Grated raw into a vinaigrette. Poached in boiling water and mashed into potatoes for a mild, surprising and soft crunch.

Flavoring homemade hummus, either raw or roasted.

Punching up pasta sauces. And keeping the vampires at bay.

Don’t underestimate this important benefit.

Of course, there are many other ways to use garlic. True connoisseurs of garlic can tell the difference between the pungent, hot garlic varieties and smoother, mellower garlic, just as a wine connoisseur can pick out all the subtleties of fine wines. Picking the right garlic for the right dish can make a delicious difference.

Garlic is also known as Allium sativum, a species of the onion genus. It’s been around for thousands of years and is native to Central Asia. It’s been used for medicinal and culinary purposes and reportedly will keep fleas off your dog.

Its kissing cousins are chives, onions and leeks, and there are hardneck and softneck varieties of garlic.

This year, a splendid array of garlic varieties inspired lots of fun kitchen experiments.

The most interesting selection of garlic I’ve found grown locally is an impressive spread at the Barley’s Garden Patch booth of Elizabeth Nichols and her family at the Norman Farmers’ Market held at the Cleveland County Fairgrounds just east of Porter Avenue on Robinson Street.

The Nichols’ booth features up to about a dozen buckets weekly of chemical-free garlic varieties, herbs and heirloom tomatoes (in cooler growing years) and other farm goodies, like eggs from free-range chickens tended by Nichols’ mother, Jacquelyn Nichols, at their northeast Norman farm. There’s also raw honey from her beekeeper brother Dan Nichols, who grows blackberries, strawberries and table grapes using integrated pest management practices.

And just in case you’re wondering, the booth’s namesake, Barley, is one sizable French Lop rabbit that loves the not-for-sale leftovers from the garden patch.

On Saturdays, you can find Nichols from 8 a.m. to noon at her booth, generously doling out advice for growing, storing and, of course, eating garlic.

She started growing garlic in 2006 after being inspired by tasting different varieties. Her first two years, her family kept all of the garlic.

“The first year, we had itty-bitty cloves,” Nichols said. “There was a whole bunch of garlic I could never sell.”

She finds her cloves about anywhere she can, from catalogs to friends.

“It usually takes a couple of years,” she said, to start up a new garlic crop.

At a recent visit to Nichols’ booth, I came away with nine kinds of garlic. That may sound overwhelming, but it’s so fun to get to choose which kind of garlic you use for the culinary purpose du jour.

Think about it: You’re making a vinaigrette, and now you have to choose between the Silverskin Italian Late — a softneck garlic Nichols calls “one of the best-tasting, versatile and very pungent cooking types” and also one of her favorites — and the Broadleaf Czech, another softneck garlic that she describes as hot raw, but mellow and full when cooked. (I used the Silverskin, which lit up my salad dressing.)

Nichols provides a flier with descriptions of the 18 kinds of garlic offered at different times.

Here are a few examples: —Inchelium Red (softneck): A tastetest winner, Nichols said this has a mild flavor and goes great with potatoes.

—Bavarian Purple (hardneck): This variety is very strong when raw and has a great cooked taste.
—Music (hardneck): Nichols said this garlic has a good, strong, mediumhot flavor and is easy to peel. —Susanville (softneck): Mildflavored, this variety is a good roaster, spreading easily on bread.

On the flip side are planting and storage instructions. Nichols suggested planting in October for harvesting in June. She also recommended planting unpeeled cloves of the varieties you want to propagate, with the pointed side up, in rich, well-drained soil, 2 inches deep and about 4 to 6 inches between plantings.

Remove the flowers in the spring for larger bulbs. The time to harvest softnecks is when they fall over. Harvest hardnecks when 50 to 75 percent of the plant has turned brown.

And Nichols had suggestions on storage. “(Garlic) can be stored six to nine months in a cool, dry, ventilated location out of direct sunlight,” she wrote on the handy description card, adding that softneck garlic store longer than hardneck.

“Store garlic hanging in bunches, in mesh bags like onion bags … or in refrigerator after peeling.”

My personal tip comes from my late grandmother Carrie Cole, who used to store onions and garlic in her discarded (and washed) nylons or pantyhose. She would knot them in between onions or garlic and then hang them from a nail in a dark place like the work-shed or kitchen closet. Cut them off as you get ready to use them.

Nichols said she doesn’t consider herself a garlic connoisseur — yet.

“We eat it on everything,” she said.

But her favorite way is simple. “I like it raw on garlic bread. Just grate up garlic with a little butter and put it on bread.”—Carol Cole-Frowe

Soft versus hard

What’s the difference between softneck and hardneck garlic? It’s all in the appearance.

garlic has a more pliable “stem” — that’s the central stalk around
which the cloves of garlic are clustered. Softneck garlic will have more
cloves that are identifiable from the papery white skin around the
bulb. Since softneck garlic lasts longer, it’s the most common type of
garlic you’ll find in grocery stores.

garlic has a woodier stalk and fewer cloves, although the cloves are
bigger. It also doesn’t have as much of that papery wrapper (and
sometimes none at all).

—Jenny Coon Peterson

Photo by Mark Hancock

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